[FoRK] [fonc] Software Crisis (was Re: Final STEP progress report abandoned?)

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Mon Sep 9 02:45:36 PDT 2013


----- Forwarded message from Casey Ransberger <casey.obrien.r at gmail.com> -----

Date: Sun, 8 Sep 2013 21:12:21 -0700
From: Casey Ransberger <casey.obrien.r at gmail.com>
To: Fundamentals of New Computing <fonc at vpri.org>
Subject: [fonc] Software Crisis (was Re: Final STEP progress report abandoned?)
Reply-To: Fundamentals of New Computing <fonc at vpri.org>

I don't think cut and paste has been the source of the problems with the
systems I've worked on (could be a symptom of one or more of the problems.)
What I see is long-term systems built around short-term, usually
competitive goals, by people who are competing both with one another (for
jobs, promotions, raises, social capital, etc,) and also cooperating with
one another to compete with other businesses at the same time. Most
people's programming habits seem to change dramatically, for example, when
they expect to throw something away. Most programmers dump the company
every 2-5 years for another (higher-paying) job, so it's *all* disposable
code in effect. It's not just the programmers either, it's the decision
makers at C-level too, who are quite often "building the company to sell
the company."

Maybe the kids are getting dumber, but what I see when I look around is
smart kids being pushed to ship before the bits are ready, and not being
*allowed* to fix "low-value" bugs which gradually accumulate until a system
is deep-sixed for being painful to work on. In other words, I don't believe
there's a software crisis or any real shortage of programming talent (I
know plenty of great programmers who regularly go without work, often
because they're unimpressed with the offers they're seeing.) I think it's
not a software crisis, I think it's a *management* crisis.

I do think new tools to make
managers/customers/investors/partners/users/programmers less stressed out
could make the overall experience better for all involved, and with that I
guess I'm talking about the continuing emergence of an engineering
discipline in software.

But that's in-house code. OTOH, FreeBSD has usually been pretty stable for
me; I don't have to put out its fires very much.

Why might this be? Let's try some fun game theory!

http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2013/130801/ncomms3193/pdf/ncomms3193.pdf


On Sun, Sep 8, 2013 at 10:33 AM, Paul Homer <paul_homer at yahoo.ca> wrote:

> Hi Alan,
>
> Is the gift really that bad? It certainly is an interesting question.
>
> I'm a frequent blogger on the topic of what could probably be described as
> the ongoing 'software crisis'. We definitely build bigger systems these
> days, but the quality has likely been declining. There is great software
> out there, but the world is littered with lots of partially working code
> that causes lots of problems.
>
> Perhaps one could lay this on the feet of better documentation. That is,
> when I started coding it was hard to find out any information so I spent a
> lot of time just playing with the underlying pieces to really understand
> them and figure out how to use them appropriately. These days, the "kids"
> do a quick google, then just copy&paste the results into the code base,
> mostly unaware of what the underlying 'magic' instructions actually do. So
> example code is possibly a bad thing?
>
> But even if that's true, we've let the genie out of the bottle and he is't
> going back in. To fix the quality of software, for example, we can't just
> ban all cut&paste-able web pages.  I definitely agree that we're terrible
> thinkers, and that for the most part as a species we are self-absorbed and
> often lazy, so I don't really expect that most programmers will have the
> same desire that I did to get down to really understanding the details.
> That type of curiosity is rare.
>
> The alternate route out of the problem is to exploit these types of human
> deficiencies. If some programmers just want to cut&paste, then perhaps all
> we can do is too just make sure that what they are using is high enough
> quality. If someday they want more depth, then it should be available in
> easily digestible forms, even if few will ever travel that route.
>
> If most people really don't want to think deeply about about their
> problems, then I think that the best we can do is ensure that their hasty
> decisions are based on as accurate knowledge as possible. It's far better
> than them just flipping a coin. In a sense it moves up our decision making
> to a higher level of abstraction. Some people lose the 'why' of the
> decision, but their underlying choice ultimately is superior, and the 'why'
> can still be found by doing digging into the data. In a way, isn't that
> what we've already done with micro-code, chips and assembler? Or machinery?
> Gradually we move up towards broader problems...
>
>
> Paul.
>
> Sent from my iPad
>
> On 2013-09-08, at 10:45 AM, Alan Kay <alan.nemo at yahoo.com> wrote:
>
> Hi Paul
>
> When I said "even scientists go against their training" I was also
> pointing out really deep problems in humanity's attempts at thinking (we
> are quite terrible thinkers!).
>
> If we still make most decisions without realizing why, and use
> conventional "thinking tools" as ways to rationalize them, then
> technologists providing vastly more efficient, wide and deep, sources for
> rationalizing is the opposite of a great gift.
>
> Imagine a Google that also retrieves counter-examples. Or one that
> actively tries to help find chains of reasoning that are based on
> principles one -- or others -- claim to hold. Or one that looks at the
> system implications of local human desires and actions.
>
> Etc.
>
> I'm guessing that without a lot of training, most humans would not choose
> to use a real "thinking augmenter".
>
> Best wishes,
>
> Alan
>
>   ------------------------------
>  *From:* Paul Homer <paul_homer at yahoo.ca>
> *To:* Alan Kay <alan.nemo at yahoo.com>
> *Cc:* Fundamentals of New Computing <fonc at vpri.org>
> *Sent:* Sunday, September 8, 2013 7:34 AM
> *Subject:* Re: [fonc] Final STEP progress report abandoned?
>
> Hi Alan,
>
> I agree that there is, and probably will always be, a necessity to 'think
> outside of the box', although if the box was larger, it would be less
> necessary. But I wasn't really thinking about scientists and the pursuit of
> new knowledge, but rather the trillions? of mundane decisions that people
> regularly make on a daily basis.
>
> A tool like Wikipedia really helps in being able to access a refined chunk
> of knowledge, but the navigation and categorization are statically defined.
> Sometimes what I am trying to find is spread horizontally across a large
> number of pages. If, as a simple example, a person could have a dynamically
> generated Wikipedia page created just for them that factored in their
> current knowledge and the overall context of the situation then they'd be
> able to utilize that knowledge more appropriately. They could still choose
> to skim or ignore it, but if they wanted a deeper understanding, they could
> read the compiled research in a few minutes.
>
> The Web, particularly for programmers, has been a great tease for this.
> You can look up any coding example instantly (although you do have to sort
> through the bad examples and misinformation). The downside is that I find
> it far more common for people to not really understanding what is actually
> happening underneath, but I suspect that that is driven by increasing time
> pressures and expectations rather than but a shift in the way we relate to
> knowledge.
>
> What I think would really help is not just to allow access to the breadth
> of knowledge, but to also enable individuals to get to the depth as well.
> Also the ability to quickly recognize lies, myths, propaganda, etc.
>
> Paul.
>
> Sent from my iPad
>
> On 2013-09-08, at 7:12 AM, Alan Kay <alan.nemo at yahoo.com> wrote:
>
> Hi Paul
>
> I'm sure you are aware that yours is a very "Engelbartian" point of view,
> and I think there is still much value in trying to make things better in
> this direction.
>
> However, it's also worth noting the studies over the last 40 years (and
> especially recently) that show how often even scientists go against their
> training and knowledge in their decisions, and are driven more by desire
> and environment than they realize. More knowledge is not the answer here --
> but it's possible that very different kinds of training could help greatly.
>
> Best wishes,
>
> Alan
>
>   ------------------------------
>  *From:* Paul Homer <paul_homer at yahoo.ca>
> *To:* Alan Kay <alan.nemo at yahoo.com>; Fundamentals of New Computing <
> fonc at vpri.org>; Fundamentals of New Computing <fonc at vpri.org>
> *Sent:* Saturday, September 7, 2013 12:24 PM
> *Subject:* Re: [fonc] Final STEP progress report abandoned?
>
> Hi Alan,
>
> I can't predict what will come, but I definitely have a sense of where I
> think we should go. Collectively as a species, we know a great deal, but
> individually people still make important choices based on too little
> knowledge.
>
> In a very abstract sense 'intelligence' is just a more dynamic offshoot of
> 'evolution'. A sort of hyper-evolution. It allows a faster route towards
> reacting to changes in the enviroment, but it is still very limited by
> individual perspectives of the world. I don't think we need AI in the
> classic Hollywood sense, but we could enable a sort of hyper-intelligence
> by giving people easily digestable access to our collective understanding.
> Not a 'borg' style single intelligence, but rather just the tools that can
> be used to make descisions that are more "accurate" than an individual
> would have made normally.
>
> To me the path to get there lies within our understanding of data. It
> needs to be better organized, better understood and far more accessible. It
> can't keep getting caught up in silos, and it really needs ways to share it
> appropriately. The world changes dramatically when we've developed the
> ability to fuse all of our digitized information into one great structural
> model that has the capability to separate out fact from fiction. It's a
> long way off, but I've always thought it was possible...
>
> Paul.
>
>   ------------------------------
>  *From:* Alan Kay <alan.nemo at yahoo.com>
> *To:* Fundamentals of New Computing <fonc at vpri.org>
> *Sent:* Tuesday, September 3, 2013 7:48:22 AM
> *Subject:* Re: [fonc] Final STEP progress report abandoned?
>
> Hi Jonathan
>
> We are not soliciting proposals, but we like to hear the opinions of
> others on "burning issues" and "better directions" in computing.
>
> Cheers,
>
> Alan
>
>   ------------------------------
>  *From:* Jonathan Edwards <edwards at csail.mit.edu>
> *To:* fonc at vpri.org
> *Sent:* Tuesday, September 3, 2013 4:44 AM
> *Subject:* Re: [fonc] Final STEP progress report abandoned?
>
> That's great news! We desperately need fresh air. As you know, the way a
> problem is framed bounds its solutions. Do you already know what problems
> to work on or are you soliciting proposals?
>
> Jonathan
>
>
> From: Alan Kay <alan.nemo at yahoo.com>
> To: Fundamentals of New Computing <fonc at vpri.org>
> Cc:
> Date: Mon, 2 Sep 2013 10:45:50 -0700 (PDT)
> Subject: Re: [fonc] Final STEP progress report abandoned?
> Hi Dan
>
> It actually got written and given to NSF and approved, etc., a while ago,
> but needs a little more work before posting on the VPRI site.
>
> Meanwhile we've been consumed by setting up a number of additional, and
> wider scale, research projects, and this has occupied pretty much all of my
> time for the last 5-6 months.
>
> Cheers,
>
> Alan
>
>   ------------------------------
>  *From:* Dan Melchione <dm.fonc at melchione.com>
> *To:* fonc at vpri.org
> *Sent:* Monday, September 2, 2013 10:40 AM
> *Subject:* [fonc] Final STEP progress report abandoned?
>
> Haven't seen much regarding this for a while.  Has it been been abandoned
> or put at such low priority that it is effectively abandoned?
>
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